Sport has a huge role to play in growing resilient communities. It not only contributes to health and well-being, but organised sport provides a focal point for raising awareness about safe sex and relationships, along with other issues. In societies where women and girls are marginalised, joining a sports team is empowering, helping to build confidence and community.
Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) New Zealand volunteers often get involved in sport outside of their assignments, but also work with numerous partner organisations to support the growth of sports throughout the wider Pacific.
Lynn Allan is volunteering with VSA as a Training and Events Adviser for the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Timor-Leste. She writes about how her extra-curricular activity has grown her involvement in the community:
I can’t imagine my life without sport. It’s super important for my overall well-being. It has also provided numerous life lessons in the power of perseverance, teamwork and leadership. The wonderful thing about sport is its potential to bring diverse groups of people together, to remove barriers and reduce inequalities.
So, when I was looking for a way to meet more Timorese people and lend my time, knowledge and skills to a project outside my VSA assignment, the newly established Netball Federation of Timor-Leste (Fenetil) was the perfect choice. Fenetil was set up with the support of Netball Australia, through funding from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and became an accredited sporting administration in 2015. With the support of Rede Feto, a national women’s network, Fenetil’s key task is to develop, grow and manage the sport of netball across Timor-Leste.
In October last year, a forum called ‘Women in Sport – Leading From the Front’ was held as part of the organisation’s strategy to increase women’s engagement and public visibility in sport. Since then a committed group of around a dozen young women train every Sunday, with their head coach, a Timorese teacher called Abrao, and their new assistant coach, a Kiwi volunteer called Lynn.
As you go about town, it’s very common to see groups of boys and men playing both informal and organised sports, most often soccer, although boxing and martial arts are also very big here. It’s not as easy to spot groups of girls and women doing the same, though Timor-Leste does boast a female Olympic cyclist, Anche Cabral, and there are active women’s sports teams, like basketball and volleyball for example. They just seem less, well, visible.
Although there have been some improvements in recent years, girls and women in Timor-Leste face massive inequalities in a wide variety of contexts. Poverty and high rates of violence continue to be critical issues for Timorese women. Their participation in social, economic and political spheres is crucial, yet their contribution is often inadequately acknowledged (like for example the key role women played in the Timorese Resistance). As the world’s most popular women’s sport, netball is a great candidate to create a safe space for Timorese girls and women to build new skills, while developing healthy lifestyles, and challenging perceptions of the capability and role of girls and women as leaders.
The highlight for me so far has been the success of a netball exhibition we held at the end of January. Members of the community were invited to come along to watch an exhibition match between New Zealand and Australian expats and the Timorese players. Prior to this event, the young Timorese players had never seen nor played a game of netball. It was incredible to see how much their confidence and skills grew. Since the event, we have almost doubled the numbers of local players training each week, and are looking to grow even more, so that eventually there will be enough players to set up a local competition.
It’s an indisputable fact that the prosperity of any community and nation is dependent upon the contribution, strength and well-being of its women. My hope is that netball will contribute towards developing confident, strong and skilled female leaders both on and off the court – for the well-being of the women involved, and for the communities they’re part of.
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